Friday waffle: Cech v Leno, a little more Mkhi, and some Arsene Wenger

It feels like it’s a been a really full on week with everything that’s been going on. You don’t really need me to give you a recap, but between Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s situation, UEFA’s dismal response to it, the players hitting out at the absence of one of their teammates, Petr Cech’s Chelsea link which he then dismissed, and everything else, the build-up to this Europa League final has been very … well … Europa League, or something.

On Cech, Tim’s column this week is on the dilemma faced by Unai Emery when it comes to his team selection for Wednesday night. For many, it’s simple: play your number 1 goalkeeper in a final, and Bernd Leno is the number 1 goalkeeper. For a manager, it is a bit more complicated. We can say that he should make his decision on footballing merits alone, which sounds reasonable for a final which means so much and which has such importance, but players don’t exist in a vacuum. He has to consider the human element.

We ran a poll on Arseblog News and 62% want to see Leno start, 38% want Cech in goal in Baku. Personally – and it’s something we discuss on today’s Arsecast in more depth – I’d go for Leno but I would feel really bad for Cech. It’s clear how much this game means to him, and to end his career with a European final win against his former club would be an amazing thing for him. But can we let sentiment cloud the decision making? Then again, what if it is in the stars that Cech’s swansong would be a game like this in which he plays a blinder? Don’t also underestimate the level to which gut feeling comes into things for managers. A cold, calculated head can be overruled by a warm heart.

Going back to Mkhitaryan, there was an assumption that he probably wouldn’t have started this game anyway, but on the podcast Charles Watts made an interesting point about what we did when we last faced Chelsea. Aaron Ramsey basically sat on Jorginho, making life as uncomfortable as possible for the Italian and preventing him from dictating play the way Maurizio Sarri wants him to.

The absence of Ramsey means it becomes a lot more complicated for Emery to replicate that, if that’s what he’s thinking about. Of course, he could be thinking about something different because he might expect that’s exactly what Sarri expects him to do. But maybe he could have performed the classic double-bluff, like putting a retaken penalty in exactly the same spot as the first one with the goalkeeper thinking ‘He won’t do that again, surely!’.

If he is, then we don’t really have a player in the available squad who can do that job without Ramsey. Mkhitaryan has the experience and physical attributes to do it reasonably well; you’d be mad to ask Mesut Ozil to do it and I don’t think Emery is mad; and after that your only other option is Alex Iwobi in a role he’s never really been asked to play before (but one which I think isn’t beyond him if he can maintain his concentration and position discipline). Which is to say that for all the moral and ethical objections we rightly have to Mkhitaryan being out the final, there are some actual footballing ones too. The reality, however, is that Emery will have to find a different solution – whether that’s in terms of personnel or system – ahead of Wednesday’s game, and undoubtedly that’s something we’ll focus on over the coming days.

Maybe that’s what yesterday’s behind closed doors friendly with Austrian side LASK Linz was all about. Part of it will have been a fitness exercise to keep players match sharp after such a long gap between games – and to get more minutes into Danny Welbeck’s legs so he can come off the bench and score the winner – but you’d imagine there was a considerable slice of this which is a tactical exercise and a chance for Emery to work on his final team set-up and system. There have been no reports of any problems or injuries from that game, so hopefully everyone’s in good shape for Wednesday.

Away from Europe, Arsene Wenger is back, having invested money into a new sports data device/website called Playmaker, he was his usual eurdite self when meeting the press yesterday at the public launch. He was interesting on the use of data in football itself, he touched on the Mkhitaryan situation and how he watches Arsenal, whether he wants to get back into management, and lots more. Well worth a read.

I did particularly like this bit though:

I read a lot, do a lot of different sports, daily, so that occupies me. I run 8-10 km a day. I travelled a lot. I did a lot of game observation, charity, many conferences on football, on management, on motivation, on the meaning of life. I personally don’t know what it means … I am always under stress a little bit but what was good is I don’t have to get up or if I have an interesting lunch I don’t have to leave because I have a commitment. I discovered that freedom of time in front of you. It is a good feeling.

To be frank, I was counting on him knowing the answer to the meaning of life. Now our only hope rests with Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg. Anyway, it’s nice to hear from the former boss again, and it’ll be interesting to see if, having enjoyed his time out of the managerial pressure cooker, he decides to get back into it. It’s an interesting thing to see someone who was essentially consumed by work, and couldn’t see anything but that job, realise that there’s other things that can bring you satisfaction in life.

Right, I’ll leave you with our second Arsecast in two days. Lots of Europa League chat, Raul and Vinai, and plenty more with Charles Watts. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the season review podcast with Ken Early you can find that here, but all the subscription/download links for today’s are below. Have a good one!


You’d Petr Cech Yourself, Before You Wreck Yourself

Should we keep faith with the cup keeper or reinstate the first choice?’ seems to have replaced the cup final song and the cup final suit as the new cup final tradition of choice. For Arsenal and Unai Emery, the conundrum is layered with complexity. Petr Cech playing his final game as a professional against his former club adds thick layers to this already plump onion.

Cech began the season as first choice goalkeeper ahead of summer signing Bernd Leno and, in the pure goalkeeping stakes, produced some of his best Arsenal form. An injury in early autumn opened the door for Leno and the German has never looked back. At first, Leno had an edge over Cech in a footballing sense.

They seemed to be goalkeepers of similar quality, but Leno is a vastly superior footballer. In 2019, it is not enough to catch crosses, parry shots and bark orders. Now a goalkeeper is effectively a deep lying playmaker and Leno is so far ahead of Cech in this respect that it’s almost comical. Cech is a goalkeeper primed in a slightly different era, whose only footballing demand was to kick long to Didier Drogba.

To watch Cech try awkwardly to pick out teammates with his feet is a little like watching Mr. Burns trying to bowl. Leno has a far more positive impact on Arsenal’s style of play- especially given Emery’s preference for playing out from the back. Opposition forwards do not press Arsenal anywhere near as intently when Leno is in goal, because they know he is comfortable with long and short passing.

As the season has progressed, so too has Leno, but not just as a ball player. He has become pretty handy with his hands too. This piece from Adrian Clarke illustrates the impressive statistics behind the German’s maiden season in England. The most resounding data from Adrian’s piece is that Leno faced 45.4 expected goals on target (xGoT), but only conceded 41. Only Fabianski, Alisson and Lloris boast better tallies.

Leno adds value as a goalkeeper and as the genesis of Arsenal’s build-up play. Though a faded force, Cech is still a thoroughly decent glove butler, but the Gunners lose something significant from their build-up with the Czech in goal. Not only does Arsenal’s build-up suffer, but Cech’s profligacy in possession puts his team under pressure.

Cech’s pass completion percentage across all competitions is 57% this season according to whoscored, compared to 69% from Leno. Across 180 minutes against Valencia, only 28% of Cech’s passes and kick outs found an Arsenal player. Chelsea are likely to field a front three of Hazard, Pedro and Willian in Baku, all of whom thrive on swift transitions. Arsenal will be under serious pressure if Cech keeps turning the ball over or pumping it out of play.

All of this, of course, is obvious to even the most casual observer. Leno is currently a better goalie than Cech, ergo he should start the final. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Cech has started all of the Europa League games since being deposed by Leno, a pact between manager and back up ‘keeper that is familiar in the modern game.

We are not privy to the conversations between player and coach, but you have to assume Cech wanted sight of the small print in advance. ‘Does that mean I play in the final, boss?’ is the most glaring T or C in this arrangement. It is tempting to say that the coach should be ruthless and renege on the deal for the good of the team.

However, that is to ignore the long-term consequences of such a call. Cech is retiring, which, admittedly, complicates matters in terms of sentiment. That the game is against Petr’s former employer adds grist to that particular mill. The coach’s decision is unlikely to be informed by sentiment if he does stick with Cech- even if he is one of football’s good guys and doesn’t deserve to have his career end on a sour personal note.

If Emery did make Cech a promise to play in the final and he publicly breaks that promise in front of the group, there is potentially a wider impact. A coach relies on the buy-in of their players and to dismiss the human and the political side of making such a call is to make a rod for your own back. Every decision on an individual has a ripple effect.

When you are managing a large group of humans, you have to consider the impact your decisions has on all of them. That said, Cech’s social media presence took on an air of (understandable) desperation in the midst of the semi-final victory over Valencia. He even gave a seven-minute interview to BT Sport on the pitch at the Mestalla, his brow caked in sweat from his trademark head wear, Cech was already giving Emery a public nudge and wink to start him in Baku. He might as well be leafleting on Emery’s doorstep.

All of which suggests to me that maybe the ‘promise’ between Emery and Cech is not signed, sealed and delivered. In fact, Leno began the season as the cup keeper, starting Europa League group games against Vorskla, Qarabag and away at Sporting. Cech’s electioneering implies that either the agreement was not finalised or else he is anxious that Emery might break it.

Earlier this week, another twist in this Shakespearean plot emerged. Cech is to join Chelsea in a Sporting Director role for next season. Arsenal have already reluctantly decided to exclude one of their players based on political grounds. I don’t doubt Cech’s professionalism even 1%, but it still serves Emery another curve-ball he could have done without for this final. (Which is why I strongly suspect Chelsea are the ones that have released the information).

The public knowledge that Cech would be lining up against his past and future employers adds a further layer of complexity. Yet in another sense, it might provide Emery with some clarity and give him the best excuse he needs to put his best feet and hands forward and start Bernd Leno. Emery will be better positioned than we to make this call- he will have an infinitely better grasp of the mood in the camp were he to deny Cech the last hurrah he clearly craves.

The issue might be an easy one for us as fans- we want to see the better goalkeeper start and, though Cech comes across as a nice guy; he certainly feels more like he ‘belongs’ to Chelsea than Arsenal. We don’t quite have the same sentimental ties. For Emery, this is a much more complicated decision than it is for us as Arsenal fans.

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If my future depends on Europa League final, then I want to go now – Sarri

Maurizio Sarri’s future at Chelsea may be up in the air, but the Italian insists it does not hinge on winning next week’s Europa League final.